Relatively speaking, not that many students take the Advanced Placement course in computer science.
Out of a little more than 2.3 million students for all subjects, fewer than 40,000 students took an exam for the course last year. While there was a slight uptick in the percentage of minority and female students, the data continue to show a jaw-dropping lack of racial and gender diversity.
Nationally, only 4 percent of all students who took the test were African American and just 20 percent were female.
Since 2008 a slow and steady effort has been underway to replace the course with one that attracts more minority and female students. The new class will be available to schools in the fall of 2016 and plugs into a larger push to diversify the nation’s tech pipeline.
To get an idea for how the new course would work, you can start by taking a seat at the empty desk next to Jacquie Parker.
“My friend walked in here and was like, ‘all these kids look like a bunch of nerds,’” Parker said. “And I’m like, ‘no, they’re not, they’re really smart and it is fun.’”
Parker, who is African American, is a senior at Ritenour High School in north St. Louis County. She plans to study engineering at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the fall and is taking part in Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which uses hands-on learning in science and technology education.
The computer science part of the school's PLTW program is built on top of the new AP computer science curriculum. In it, students learn to code by doing things like making their own video games.
“You made this, you programmed this by yourself?” Parker’s friends will ask.
“Yeah,” she’ll tell them with a smile. “And it’s the bomb, it’s so much fun.”
Christina Demuri taught the current AP computer science class before switching over to the pilot curriculum. She said in the other course, students had to dive right into using a complicated programming language called Java.
“It was a turn off,” Demuri said. “Because they were thrown into it and they were like, ‘I have no background at all.’ ”
The new curriculum, however, brings students along slowly by starting them out with something called Scratch, a language developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology that can be used to develop basic games.
“It’s kind of like Legos, where if they don’t fit together it’s not going to work,” Demuri said. “And it’s very common sense. And then we go into app inventor and that kind of catches them because they like creating apps.”
Each language is designed to introduce students to the core logic behind computer programming. In the PLTW version of the curriculum Demuri uses, students also move on to Python. The language has quickly gained popularity as the introductory language of choice at many college programming courses.
A point not lost on Brandon Anderson. The senior, who is African American, plans to attend the University of Missouri in the fall and pursue a career in computer programming.
“If I wouldn’t have taken this class, I probably would have no idea what I was doing,” Anderson said. “But taking this, I know I have a base to start at.”
The hands-on learning is especially appealing, and Anderson said he’s been recruiting his friends to take the class.
“Programming seems dorky sometimes to people who don’t actually do it,” Anderson said. “It’s challenging, you’re going to get really annoyed, but it’s so worth it when you’re done with the project.”
A matter of scale
There are 11 students in the class at Ritenour High School, four of whom are African American. The school’s student body is roughly equal parts white and African American students, so the breakdown is not bad.
But put the class roster in perspective: Of the 255 students in Missouri who took the exam for the current AP computer science last year, only six were African American.
For the past six years, Owen Astrachan has been trying balance out numbers like that. The professor of computer science at Duke University is running the project to develop a new AP class, which received a $5.3 million kick start in the form of a grant from the National Science Foundation last year.
“Rebooting computer science education is exactly what we’re doing,” Astrachan said.
With that in mind, he says the AP class is an ideal place to start. The landscape surrounding computer science education in America is fractured, and few states have standards in place. At the same time, the marketplace is being flooded by ed-tech startups looking to sell school districts on tools they say will give students a programming edge for a 21st-century economy.
Against this backdrop, the College Board -- a nonprofit that produces AP courses and the SAT, a college entrance exam -- is a trusted stalwart. Thousands of high schools across the country are already offering AP courses.
“It’s hard to get a national lever to move things and the Advanced Placement Program that the College Board runs is such a lever,” Astrachan said.
In other words, AP presents an opportunity to bring a new curriculum and best practices for recruiting more minority and female students to scale. Partnerships with Teach for America and the National Math and Science Initiative are also designed to expand the number of students taking the new course. But moving the lever takes time.
A big selling point for AP classes is that students can get a jumpstart on their college education by passing a test at the end of their course. Before the first test for the new class is administered, Astrachan said, it must be carefully researched and colleges and universities must be convinced of the course’s academic merit. The expectation is that the first exams for the new course will be administered in the spring of 2017.
So far, 80 colleges and universities have publicly voiced approval for the class. The exam remains a work in progress, with somewhere between 40 to 60 percent will be a traditional test. But the rest of a student’s score based on the successful completion of projects.
“Making it possible for students to succeed in a different way, without having to sit and have their entire year of learning judged in a three-hour exam,” Astrachan said.
The curriculum is based on the idea of moving students along slowly, Astrachan said, stressing how what they do in class translates in today's tech environment.
“How do you understand big data, how does the internet work, what is internet security? There are a host of topics that are new,” Astrachan said.
The class also emphasizes group work. And by working to make those groups more diverse, Astrachan said in the long-term the effects could carry over into a tech work force that sorely lacks women and minority workers.
“There is a feedback loop in all these groups,” Astrachan said. “How diversity works in one place helps it work at all levels.”
But other hurdles must be cleared, including expanding the number of schools with large minority enrollments that offer AP courses and recruiting more female and minority computer science teachers.
Astrachan said the class can’t single handedly rewire computer science education in America. Rather, it’s meant to dovetail with other efforts like Code.org, which has an A-list of supporters like former president Bill Clinton, rapper Snoop Dog and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The nonprofit is behind this week’s so-called hour of code. Meanwhile, according to the White House the seven largest school districts in the country, including New York, Los Angeles and Miami, have recently committed to stepping up computer science education in their classrooms.
“I’d say right now things look really good,” Astrachan said. “But we need to keep measuring and taking steps to reach the potential we think we have.”